Heroic Measures

Classic Arts Features   Heroic Measures
Bernard Haitink conducts Beethoven's symphonies for Lincoln Center's "Voices and Visionaries" series October 7-13.

In 1845 Ludwig Van Beethoven's birthplace, the German city of Bonn, erected a heroic bronze statue of the composer and celebrated the event with a gigantic festival of his music. The composer-journalist Hector Berlioz attended the festivities as correspondent for the Paris Journal des d_bats, and among his characteristically trenchant comments was his summation that, "Today the thousands of men and women, young and old, who have spent so many sweet hours with his works, whom he has so often carried away on the wings of his thought to the highest regions of poetry, the enthusiasts whom he has excited to the point of delirium, the humorists whom he has diverted by so many witty and unexpected turns, the thinkers to whose reveries he has opened immeasurable realms ... today all these intelligent and sensitive souls, on whom his genius has shed its radiance, turned to him as toward a benefactor and a friend."

Berlioz, at once a symphonic rebel and a worshipper of Classical art, was hardly the only composer who regarded Beethoven as a figure just short of divine. To Franz Liszt, "Beethoven's work parallels the pillars of smoke and fire that guided the Israelites through the desert." In Robert Schumann's opinion, "Nature would burst if she attempted to produce naught but Beethovens." Even the Victorian Irish composer Michael William Balfe, best remembered for his tuneful opera, The Bohemian Girl, admitted, with a characteristic touch of blarney, that "there are two composers I've never scrupled to borrow from — one's Beethoven, the other's meself."

Conversely Johannes Brahms revered Beethoven's symphonies to such a degree that he suffered from writer's block for at least a decade while attempting to face writing his first symphony. But this was no ordinary writer's block, for while gathering his symphonic courage, Brahms produced, among other works, his first piano concerto, three string quartets, two string sextets, two piano quartets, a piano quintet, the Alto Rhapsody, and the German Requiem, not to mention sheaves of lieder. It was perhaps the most productive example of procrastination in history. Nonetheless it wasn't until 1876, when Brahms was 43, that he finally addressed Beethoven on his own most hallowed ground. And Beethoven's inspiration courses mightily through that first Brahms symphony, from the key itself — C minor, like that of Beethoven's Fifth — to its victorious C major conclusion (again like Beethoven's Fifth) and the introduction of the majestic theme of the finale, recalling the "Ode to Joy" of Beethoven's Ninth). Is it any wonder that the conductor and pianist, Hans von Bulow declared Brahms's First to be "Beethoven's Tenth"?

There is a good reason why Beethoven's nine symphonies are among the most frequently performed and recorded works in the repertoire: No matter how many times you've already heard them, you have only to play or listen to any one of them again for your ear to be engaged by the music's vigor, and by its regenerative ability to sound incredibly fresh.

With his First Symphony, written in 1800, Beethoven the iconoclast broke new orchestral ground. With all due respect to the portentous energy of the "Jupiter" Symphony, not to mention Mozart's visionary harmonic ideas in the late string quartets, the four opening measures of Beethoven's First, in C major, truly bid adieu to the 18th century by heralding a new freedom of symphonic form and harmonic relationship.

The first two chords form a cadence in F major, which would have led any perceptive listener in 1800 to believe that that was to be the key of the movement. But this is immediately followed by a cadence moving to C major, the dominant degree of F major. The same listener would have thought this rapid progression of seemingly isolated keys odd. But then his ear would have been surprised further by the next slightly prolonged progression to G major. And it is only the ensuing phrases that prove this triumphant G major chord to be the dominant degree of the symphony's home key. From our postmodern viewpoint, this series of aural surprises constitutes a gesture of exceeding simplicity. But many of Beethoven's most powerful gestures are built upon the simplest musical materials. Consider, for example, how he is able to convey the essence of tragedy by the soft dotted melody of the "Eroica" funeral march in C minor, with its first three notes played on the open G string, the lowest, most resonant, most mournful note of the violins. Consider how Beethoven achieves the sense of cosmic mystery with the first 16 measures of open fifths on A and D at the start of the Ninth Symphony, or consider possibly the simplest, most powerful, indeed most familiar of all his symphonic gestures, the primary motive — in C minor again — of the opening movement of the Fifth.

Beethoven's symphonies are the backbone of the repertoire, and it is with considerable excitement that Lincoln Center audiences this month are waiting to hear these glorious works performed by the venerable London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Bernard Haitink. Maestro Haitink's connection with Beethoven spans the length of his long and estimable career. Most recently his Beethoven symphony cycle with the LSO has been recorded live by LSO Live and the initial releases — the Second and Sixth — have received high critical praise. Recently discussing his present thoughts on Beethoven, Haitink referred to the composer as "the great comforter," praising Beethoven's "song-like lyricism especially in some of the slow movements of the symphonies." Think, for instance, of the beautiful arching melody of the slow movement of the Second, not to mention the heavenly lyricism of the adagio of the Ninth. The conductor notes the importance in Beethoven's oeuvre "of a singing, cantabile tone, and how frequently the "cantabile marking appears in his piano sonatas."

But, of course, the most overwhelming impression we get from Beethoven's instrumental music is dramatic. "Beethoven only wrote one opera," Haitink observes, "but think how much drama there is in his instrumental music. In the symphonies we can hear opposing characters playing out their roles, and in the development sections the protagonists of these instrumental dramas are sometimes almost fighting one another." Haitink feels that in recent years he himself has become "more conscious of tempi and of the importance of Beethoven's metronome markings, even if some of them were inserted many years after the composition." Although a conductor of leading symphony orchestras playing modern instruments, Haitink expresses gratitude for the insights provided by the original-instrument movement. "I try to keep an open mind about this," he says, "and I admire many artists who aim for an 'authentic style,' although we should remain a little skeptical, because we can never know exactly how this music sounded in Beethoven's day, or what sounds he imagined in his mind while composing."

As for playing styles, he feels that because each of the symphonies is different, each must be approached on its own terms. "I'd never dream of playing the First or Second with a large string body," he says. "We have to choose the balances that are most appropriate to each symphony and to the physical surroundings of the performance venue."

"I've been conducting Beethoven now for something like 50 years, and his music will never cease to give me amazing happiness," Haitink says. For him, Beethoven's music is truly universal, truly capable of inspiring infinite musical and philosophical interpretations, which is why we can apply so many labels to it and describe it in so many ways. In short, says the maestro, "we should all be immensely grateful that Beethoven brought these works into existence."

Barrymore Laurence Scherer writes frequently about the arts.

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